Cycling the Himalayas

Jitesh Nayak
19 min readOct 3, 2017

This story follows three friends embarking a journey of lifetime. A journey spanning 600Kms of self-supported cycling across the Himalayan terrain. It activated certain brain cells which changed how we perceive the world.

Akash and I had discussed this a year ago when the two of us we were hiking in the Parvati valley. The plan started taking shape after Akash, Midhun and I had gotten tired of following our mundane routines. We put ourselves on a strict regime for the next two months. Each day, we cycled for 40Kms and did an extra 60kms on the weekends. We procured things needed for the trip and planned our route after much deliberation. Everything was set! We decided to reach Delhi on the 7th of July and transport our bikes on a bus to Manali on the 8th. Everything went as planned but unfortunately my connecting flight to Delhi got cancelled at the last minute. Luckily, I managed to reach on time via train and we boarded our bus to Manali on the 8th.

First day on the hills

DAY 1 Manali

I look at the beginning of our journey as a group of super excited kids with their bums on the saddle hoping to tame mountains. The day began with unpacking and assembling our cycles. We figured out lot more about cycle parts and were much more confident about our cycles. Akash even managed to fuck up his gear cables, somehow we fixed it but just to be assured we got it checked with a mechanic, he fucked it even more. Now he couldn’t lower his front derailleur than 2, he decided to go along with it like a fixie bike. As going up on third wasn’t even an option.

Result: Akash was thrice as fast than us on uphills.

To start, we did a few excursions within Manali but by the end of the day we were equally excited and nervous about the upcoming climbs. We came early in the evening because we had to pack our stuffs and figure out whether the weight was equally distributed among us, which was approximately 20Kgs per person in our pannier bags.

The Hill begins

Day 2 Manali to Marhi

We began our trip early in the morning at 6AM after a sound sleep of 7 hours. The terrain was tough and the elevation was breathtaking (literally!) but the lush green mountains, clouds and flora around us made the ride much more exciting.

Clouds, Flower and the Disc

We were told that this stretch of the route would be the toughest; it was 34kms with a whooping gain in elevation of 1895m. We cycled at our own pace and took short breaks in between to catch up with each other. During every stop we would share what we saw on the road.

“Did you see that mountain bending the sun rays?”… “ How is the ride?”; we would ask each other while munching on our chocolate bars and catching up on our breaths.

Catching up with each other

It took us a total of 6 hours to reach Marhi and I even struggled a bit during the last stretch. We had our lunch upon reaching. The locals told us that this would be the last point where we will have any phone network, so we called our families. We cycled to a picturesque spot and decided to set up our tents and spend the rest of the night there.

We got our dinners packed from the village and quietly enjoyed the meal at the camp. Rajma chawal was going to be our only source of protein for the rest of our trip. The winds became colder as the night crawled in and we realised it was time to snuggle in to our sleeping bags.

Up, up, up and down

Day 3 Marhi - Rohtang La - Khoskar - Sissu

The first morning of self supported camping was upon us. We were getting ready to take the day by the storm. A curious onlooker approached us and offered to help us pack. He was an organiser for a supported cycling group and offered us breakfast and chai in his camp nearby. We delightfully accepted. He told us about the do’s and don’ts of this epic terrain. He also gave us a few bulbs of garlic which is a natural remedy for altitude sickness and helps in breathing as air becomes thinner.

We began riding at 8 am and it was still foggy. The road was lined with multiple hairpin bends. It was a mix of ascending and descending trails for a total of 49Kms and the elevation gain was 1492m. We were excited about the first downhill of the trip which panned approximately 25kms ☺, but first we had to climb Rohtang La which was 15Kms from Marhi. The air was dense with thick fog blinding our vision.

Higher we went, thinner the air became. It was getting difficult to pedal and breathe. Bikes, trucks and cars would pass by us; some were even rash and brushed past us. We met a lot of bikers during the whole trip who were amazed by us and took pictures of us too.

The roads were narrow and a few spots were hit by landslides, so we had to ride over the edge of the cliff. We saw an ice capped mountain just before reaching Rohtang La. It looked like a huge marble rock from far but as I got closer, I realised what it was. Happiness on my face was outrightly visible as it was the first time I saw something so magnificent.

We were glad to reach at the top of Rohtang La. We clicked the customary photos and had our munchies. As the ice cold breeze was piercing through our skin, we took rest for not more than 30 minutes before we began the next leg of our journey. We grinned at each other before we started for the exciting challenge ahead.

Mother nature hidden behind the fog unveiled her true beauty reminding us of just how unpredictable this environment can be! Because very soon, the temperature soared up significantly.

The mountains are relentless, I don’t know whats worse going up or coming down.

As our bicycles started heading downhill it was difficult not to be distracted by the natural beauty but we were zooming past motorcycles, cars. We even reached at a speed of 80Kmph at a point, oh yes! Adrenaline rush to the max! We finally reached our destination, Sissu, around 3PM and had our lunch. We couldn’t find a site for camping as most of the flat lands were being used for farming. A few locals came to help and pointed us to a place where we could stay.

We booked a serene camp on a small cliff, overlooking the village for only Rs500. Here we de-greased and washed our cycles. We got hot water to shower before heading back to the village to buy some painkillers for Midhun’s knee pain. We were welcomed back at the camp with a bonfire and dinner. We discussed how dangerously fast we gained speed while riding downhill and without proper gear it could be fatal. So we pledged that we would be more careful as we descend the next time and slept off.

Still rolling

Day 4 Sissu - Keylong - Jispa

Midhun was struggling a bit with his knee. Akash was leading the pack and reached an hour early before us. Today, 51.5Kms (1331m elevation gain) of the uphill ride was gruesome for me. I couldn’t believe I survived another day.

Camping in front of the Monastery and School in Jispa

After an hour starting from Sissu it started raining and the mountains kept getting bigger and scarier. Sissu to Jispa was a journey amidst the valley with mountains on either sides. The roads were well built with small patches of unpaved roads. We would now start to see buddhist relics more frequently.

Clouds were engulfing the mountains, the blue sky was nowhere to be seen.

Keylong was a big city as compared to the villages we crossed. We bought some bananas and enquired about the oxygen cylinders. But folks suggested that it wasn’t as bad as we thought and garlic would do wonders if we got caught up in any situation. So, we continued our journey taking short breaks, clicking pictures. The roads were nice but unforgiving due to the ascend. Moreover, our shoes were all wet. A short descend towards the end brought us to Jispa, a beautiful town in the valley, at around 2PM. Akash had already reached before us and was drying himself up. Soon, the weather cleared giving us the warmth of the sun that we needed.

Jispa is on the plains, so we decided to put up our tents today (also traditional camps were too costly). Out of safety concerns, we requested a mountaineering institute in Jispa to allow us to camp in their premise but the guy in-charge was an unreasonable asshole. We had a scuffle with him so we thought of having lunch before finding a place to camp. We halted at a cafe at the outskirts of Jispa and dried up up our shoes.

Weird trees, looked like someone planted it upside down

The only STD calling facility available within this area was defunct, so we couldn’t call our families. In the evening we requested the STD booth owner to call our parents and inform them about our well being whenever he gets connectivity. The guy initially seemed arrogant but he actually made that call after a fews days.

After lunch we started looking for places to camp and found a really nice place by the river, near a monastery with access to drinking water. We took permission from the monastery and camped there. We went to wash our cycles in the river stream and spent the rest of the evening doing all sorts of stunts on our cycles on a small helipad nearby. We ate our packed food back in our tents and called it a day.

Zing Zing Bar kicked my arse

Day 5 Jispa - Zing Zing Bar

One of the biggest stream we had to cross on right

Today we began our journey without having breakfast. The road was good but the 30.3Kms of ride wasn’t bestowed mercy from the mountain gods, for the ascend had an elevation gain of 1198m.

It started with a short downhill ride till a police check point. We were asked to show our identity cards and pass through whereas the bikers had to wait quite a bit as they were being checked for certain permissions. From this point onwards, began our uphill ride. There were very few folks on the way… hardly any signs of civilisation. After passing through the grilling hills and a small lake, Deepak Taal, we were finally at the plains. We came across a massive Indian Army camp which looked like an apocalyptic scene, empty trucks, no guards, not a sign of anything!

We rode ahead to find them enjoying India’s favourite sport, Cricket. And as always, Akash was here waiting for us, eating snacks and chai with the army folks. We halted there for a while, watched them play, chatted a bit and began our ride shortly afterwards.

India army playing cricket at the foothills

It was hardly 10Kms to our destination and we were pretty thrilled but then towards the end, a massive 6Km hill appeared, the fucker just kept getting steeper! Until now, we had nothing more than a few biscuits and dry fruits. Midhun’s knee wasn’t in a good shape; swollen and the pain made him slow. I too was struggling. Akash in his yellow t-shirt was on full swing. Throughout the day, we saw a yellow dot zooming ahead from far. Finally, it appeared that we reached Zing Zing Bar. There was only one restaurant there. We saw Akash waiting for us at an off-road track which seemed like a shortcut and had a steep climb. Midhun and I decided to grab a bite first and gestured Akash to come down. But he went up ahead pushing his cycle; pedalling on that path was impossible.

Coming back down from a cliff is not a thing anybody would do once its scaled.

We pushed hoping to see ZZBar at top
Just half way through

We assumed that it was just a small steep cliff, our destination waited for us right at the top. Yippee!!! Right? Well, we were wrong. After our snacks, we went ahead to take that short cut and man I tell you, IT WAS GODDAMN TOUGH! With more than 15Kg at the rear, pulling our cycle on a steep climb was so hard that we had to take quite a few breaks to reach at the top just to realise that it doesn’t bring you to ZZBar. It only connects you to the road leading to ZZBar. Still 4Kms were left. Now we were totally busted and barely managed to pedal. We stepped down and pushed our cycles mostly. And soon it began raining with strong wind blowing. We covered the 4km stretch after two gruesome hours of pedalling and pushing. Ahh! Relief finally! Akash had already reached and was done with his lunch. He got worried waiting and had almost set out to look for us.

At restaurant at ZZbar, had a huge tent lined with mattresses and quilts stacked. We chose to stay there for the night. They charged Rs100 per mattress. As it got darker outside, it was getting windy and cold. I took two quilts and slept for a while. At around 6PM, four other cyclists checked in. Two of which were an elderly Czechoslovakian couple. And the other two fellows were from Chennai whom we had met in Manali on Day 1. They were following the same route and schedule as ours, but we never crossed each other along the way. They all had inspiring stories to tell, we shared ours and had our dinner together. We tucked ourselves in multiple layers of blanket and slept off.

Bro! Baralacha La Bro!

Day 6 Zing Zing Bar - Sarchu - Brandy Nala

ZZBar is at a height of 4071m above sea level, and today our target was to ride 72Kms. The route had a picturesque view of the lake ‘Suraj Taal’ and a tough climb of 20Kms through Baralacha La pass at 4911m. We started at 7 in the morning, other cyclists also started around the same time. It was a slow start with the sun scorching above us but we still left others behind in some time. We applied extra layers of sunscreen on our face and body. The steep climb on the hill didn’t bother us like yesterday but it still was challenging. We slowly pedalled our way to the beautiful blue Suraj Taal. Mesmerised by the beauty of this lake, we made a quick stop to appreciate the wonders of nature.

We reached Baralacha La pass after a few more hours of climbing, took some pictures and started off for the long downhill. The expectation of a smooth downhill ride went downhill due to the dusty path and extremely hot weather conditions. But it didn’t tire us much and we thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

On approaching Sarchu, we found a calling booth charging Rs.20/minute inside a private camp. We called our parents after 4 days and told them about our remaining trip schedule. The locals in Sarchu suggested us not to continue towards Brandy Nala as there wasn’t any accommodation available there. So, we stayed at Sarchu for the night and decided to cover the extra miles of 20Kms tomorrow. At Buddha hotel, we had Rajma Chawal and cleaned our bicycle. I was febrile and had headache so I went off to sleep early. Midhun and Akash went out for a walk and were back before dark. I woke up to the sound of a few ladies singing in the hotel. The song was simply about three people crossing Sarchu, going towards Wishkey Nala and eating Maggi. Interestingly, we didn’t have Maggi at all until we reached Leh. We called it a night with that beautiful song.

At Buddha Hotel

Oh, don’t ask why

Day 7 Sarchu to Whisky Nala

Well, show me the way to next Whisky Bar

Gata Loops, 21 hairpin bends

With the extra 20Kms that we hadn’t completed the earlier day, we still decided to camp at Whiskey Nala as planned which was a total of 50Kms, and God! we made the right decision. Oh, don’t ask why?

We surprisingly met one of the Chennai guys, Venky, while starting. His friend had fallen sick and went straight to Leh. Venky decided to ride with us and we began our ride downhill. We were enjoying the pleasantly sunny day on our saddle, singing through the valley. At one point, I got distracted and went off road on a sharp curve but luckily managed to balance myself without getting hurt. At this instance, I wondered, “where did I pack my medical kit…?”.

Within an hour of our ride, Akash’s cycle broke down. His bungee rope broke and got stuck in the gear during a small speedy jump. We tried to detangle the cord from the gear, so we cut it, but it made things worse instead. Thankfully, the supported-cycling group were passing by and came to rescue. We had earlier met and befriended this group’s lead/mechanic, Rinjin, on our way to Rohtang Pass on Day 2 and he was impressed by our sheer effort. If it was not for Rinjin, we had got ourselves stuck in that deserted place. After an hour of effort, we were able to pull out the cord using brute force. We had an extra bungee cord to strap Akash’s pannier bag. Rinjin went off on his support vehicle wishing us luck and we resumed the ride.

We reached the infamous Gata Loops, a steep climb. 21 hairpin bends ahead of us seemed easy at the beginning. I counted till the 8th one then lost count as well as my breathe. We were quite assured that crossing Gata Loops will bring us to Whiskey Nala almost immediately but how can we forget the treacherous ways of the mountains which brought us to the mighty Jhata Loop (off course, we named it). The Jhata Loop was never ending, and the scorching heat was upon us. We were tired and running out of water, hoping the loop would end soon. We kept pedalling and stopped to enquire about the remaining distance to Whiskey Nala whenever anybody approached in our direction.

Midhun on Gata Loops

By now we had ran out of water and there was no sign of Whiskey Nala yet. Our lucks turned when we met a group of cyclists returning back on a jeep after their climb. They not only refilled our bottles but also gave us a few chocolate bars and extra water bottles. They clicked a picture with us and went ahead while we pedalled our way.

We crossed Nakeela Pass at 4739m to reach Whiskey Nala down in the valley. There were only two restaurants here. We had chai and camped close to Rinjin’s group beside a stream.

It was still sunny, so we thought it would be a good idea to wash clothes and ourselves. Too late to realize it was a BAD idea guys! The water was so cold that it was painful even to touch it, but we still went ahead and took a bath. Soon the sun showed us the finger and hid behind the mountains. We went to pick our dinner from one of the restaurants and came back. The night was so cold that we couldn’t sleep all night. By morning, we found our washed clothes stiff and frozen!

Frozen shirt

When the going gets tough

Day 8 Whiskey Nala - Pang - Moore Plains - Debring

Moore Plains, 20Kms of straight road was beautiful

After surviving the cold night we started early, it was a sunny day. Guys here’s a free advice, ‘Never take short-cuts!’, especially in the mountains. We took one again today and it fucked me up completely, not worse than the one to ZZBar, but still! We rode approximately 20kms of ascend today which brought us to the long awaited downhill ride of 50kms.

This terrain was totally different from what we saw on the previous days. Dusty, unpaved roads, a river flowing along the side and interesting formations of rocks… They felt like huge sand castles carved out by some giant. An MTB worthy trail for sure!

We reached Pang at around 11AM. It is a military settlement having a satellite phone at the military base. We called our loved ones again after having some amazing veg. thukpa in a restaurant near by… the best thukpa (a Tibetan noodle soup) I ever had.

Going forward we had a long steep climb to Moore Plains. It was the most beautiful place we had seen so far. Flat plains for miles to see. We were awestruck by the sight. We effortlessly pedalled on the flat straight roads with delight.

Nature surprise us every day, in Ladhak its every hour.

Sheep skull was common sight

On our way, we crossed Rinjin and his group, saw shepherds and nomads as well. We arrived at Debring around 5PM and stayed at the hotel (a big tent) owned by a Ladhaki couple; there were 2–3 other tents as well. Two cute little kids gave us company and played with us for the rest of the evening.

Best way to have Maggi, Slurrrp!

We met Venky here again, who was way ahead of us when Akash’s cycle had broken down. We ended the night with a game of cards and later had our dinner.

We are up for taming the beast!

Day 9 Debring to Upshi

Tanglang La, second highest motorable pass after Khardung La

Debring to Tanglang La was 4 hours of treacherous ride. The pass was visible to us from far but covering this route took a lot of effort. Every time it seemed we were getting closer to the pass; the road would take an unexpected turn around the hill. There is a hill behind every hill, that’s what I learned today.

Closer the mountain gets steeper and tougher the climb gets.

We managed to reach at the top and had tea there. It was lot colder than we thought. Here we saw snow alongside the road.

What goes up has to come down. We began on a long downhill. As far as I remember, I didn’t have to pedal for a long-long time. Once we were down on the plain, the whole environment transformed to lush green fields which we hadn’t seen for a while. We could see Stupas on every corner, every hill top. Land of Stupas, it aptly said on the road signs. We were spellbound by the beauty of this place.

Land of stupas

The hills were quite different in color and shape; they were edgy and reddish-brown. Even the houses were reddish brown. It was unreal; like god had photoshopped the whole thing. It must have been a rock climber’s dream of paradise.

We didn’t want to leave this place. We felt the happiness and peace here in Land of Stupas. If I have to settle in the mountains this will be the place, definitely!

At around 4 we reached Upshi. It is a town with a relatively upscale marketplace. We took a decent dorm room, freshened up and ate our lunch in a nearby restaurant. We explored the city and celebrated our ride. We were brimming with happiness as the next day we would be reaching Leh, only 49Kms away. We thought of going to Leh today itself, but decided otherwise; resting was a better idea. Post dinner we played cards before going back to sleep.

Back on the highway

Day 10 Upshi to Leh

We were up by 7 and started our ride by 8. 49Kms seemed like a cake walk, no steep climbs, good road and not much of sun at the beginning. After every 20Kms there was a town, dotted with many monasteries and army camps. It was a busy road with comparatively more traffic. My phone network was also persistently available throughout the route. It was a scenic route with beautiful houses built overlooking the mountains… the second best place to spend the rest of my life ☺.

After an hour of riding, Venky’s cycle got a puncture. We offered to help him out, but he was well prepared with his kit and insisted us to move on.

Thiksey Monastery

We crossed Karu, Skatna, Thiksey (a beautiful monastery located on a hill top), Shey as well as huge army battalions in between. We reached Leh by 12. It’s a big city contrary to what I had imagined it to be.

We looked for accomodation and hiked in the southern part of town. We found a homestay owned by a Kashmiri family and booked it for the next 5 days. It had a hot water bath, TV and all the other luxuries that we hadn’t actually missed all these days.

A house cat at Leh judged us with odd-eyes

Almost time for a rest

For the next two days we shopped, ate and cycled around Leh to get acclimatised and most importantly gave rest to our legs for the final stretch… arguably the highest motorable pass in the world.

We will back with more

How we got screwed by Khardung La is another story to tell. Till then watch this part-1 of our journey:

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